Robert Zemeckis’ new film “Beowulf” gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “the sublime and the ridiculous.” Zemeckis took the oldest and most important text of our ur-language, and turned it into a 3-D Disneyland ride so cheesy he should have called it “Anglo-Saxons of the Caribbean.” Of course, there’s nothing new or surprising about this. Hollywood has been profaning history and literature since long before Cecil B. DeMille cast Charlton Heston as Moses. If the Bible isn’t sacred, why should the oldest poem in our ancestral language be?
But the “Beowulf” travesty is especially glaring, because of the obvious contrast with another work that mined the same ancient field: J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “The Lord of the Rings.” “Beowulf” isn’t just a bad, although visually spectacular, movie, it’s a huge missed opportunity. With enough imaginative audacity, Zemeckis could have created a mythical universe, one that finds the mysterious threads that connect the distant past to our time. Instead, he turned our shared cultural heritage into a cartoon. (This hasn’t hurt “Beowulf” at the box office: It was the highest-grossing movie in the country after its first weekend.)
Comparing “Beowulf” to Tolkien’s masterpiece is setting the bar high, but Zemeckis’ choice of “Beowulf” made that inevitable. There’s no real reason to take on “Beowulf” unless you want to go all the way. That’s true not just because it’s a canonical text, but because there’s no way to make a movie out of it. When you’re faced with the impossible, you’d better bring some magic to the undertaking. You need more than 3-D special effects — you need a 3-D imagination.
“Beowulf” is the earliest piece of vernacular European literature, and it remains perhaps the most unfathomable one, an uncanny visitation from a dark lost corner of our history, an era caught between paganism and Christianity. The inscrutability of “Beowulf” has made it contested ground for scholars for over a century. Since even experts cannot agree on what it means, how should a modern artist approach it?
Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Zemeckis had the right to choose any source material he wanted, and do whatever he wanted with it. And perhaps his high-tech extravanganza will awaken interest not just in one ancient poem, but even our forgotten Germanic heritage — even, perhaps, history itself. But if it does, it won’t be because of his artistic vision.
For those readers who heeded Woody Allen‘s words in “Annie Hall” and gave a wide berth to all classes that included “Beowulf,” here’s a crib sheet. “Beowulf” is a 3,183-line poem, written by an unknown poet in Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon, the Germanic language spoken in England before the Norman Conquest), probably in the 8th century, but possibly as much as several hundred years later. The poem survives only in a single manuscript, a copy made around 1,000 A.D. that is now in the British Museum. The events it relates take place in what is now Denmark around 500 A.D., so the author is already looking back at a distant time. Crucially, he is a Christian, who has a highly ambiguous relation to the pagan hero he celebrates. Scholars continue to debate the exact nature of his, his poem’s, and his audience’s Christianity and attitude to paganism — as well as just about everything else about the poem.
The story is stark and strange. A monster named Grendel, a descendant of the biblical Cain, has been terrorizing the kingdom of Denmark for 12 years. A great warrior named Beowulf vows to kill Grendel. He and 14 men sail from their home in Geatland (southern Sweden) to Denmark, where Beowulf kills the monster and then the monster’s horrible mother. He receives gifts and honor from the aging Danish king and sails back home, where he rules for 50 years. When a dragon rampages through his kingdom, Beowulf seeks out the monster and kills it, but is himself mortally wounded. After his death he is remembered by his people as the kindest of kings and the most eager for fame.
Whatever its historical and literary virtues, this is not a story that is going to pack them in at the local multiplex. Any faithful film adaptation of “Beowulf” would almost certainly be a commercial failure, because the poem’s essence is mythical. Its characters are one-dimensional, and it has only one plot development: The hero gets old and dies. Its greatness lies in its language, not its story. “Beowulf” is a hard and haunted poem, one that evokes what the “Cambridge History of English Literature” called “the dim, palpable unknown.” Old English is a foreign language, but if you read a bilingual edition, like Seamus Heaney’s fine translation, every now and then a familiar word appears, like a grim rock thrusting out of a turbulent sea. For Tolkien, a philologist who as a child was as preternaturally sensitive to the sound of language as the young Mozart was to music, the very sound of Old English was revelatory. As professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, Tolkien would electrify his classes with his dramatic recitation of “Beowulf’s” opening. (In a letter to Tolkien, W.H. Auden wrote reverently, “[Your] voice was the voice of Gandalf.”)
There is one film version of “Beowulf” that is literally true to the original: Actor Benjamin Bagby recites the entire poem in the original Old English, accompanying himself on the Anglo-Saxon harp. It’s a remarkable performance, but the film seems unlikely to ever be shown in places where they charge money for admission.
Aspiring to a larger audience, Zemeckis’ film and the three previous film versions of “Beowulf” have radically altered the story. Two of the earlier films take a demythologizing approach, attempting to imagine what real events might have given rise to the supernatural tale. “Beowulf and Grendel,” made in 2005 and shot in Iceland, makes Grendel a sympathetic Bigfoot, a vaguely Neanderthal loner who is taking vengeance on the Danes after they killed his father. “The Thirteenth Warrior” (1999), based on a Michael Crichton novel, also eschews the supernatural: The monsters are humans clad in bearskins. In a further wrinkle, it is told from the perspective of an Arab diplomat who finds himself unwillingly in Beowulf’s band. Both are worthy efforts, and the eccentric “Beowulf and Grendel” rises at times to heights of hypnotic intensity, although it’s painfully uneven. The 1999 “Beowulf,” starring Christopher Lambert, is hilariously dreadful, a fine candidate to be made into a Mystery Science Theater episode. It is set in a post-apocalyptic future, with Beowulf as a dark and obsessed hero. The big plot innovation is Grendel’s mother, who becomes a hot babe/horrific monster, played by a blond Playboy model in a net, who previously seduced the old king (from which unholy union Grendel emerged) and tries to work her evil wiles on Beowulf by caressing his nether sword. When that fails, she turns into a multiwinged, Pterodactyl-like harpy.
Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” hits upon the same narrative twist, if not quite as ludicrously. Once again, Grendel’s mother is a demonic hottie (upgraded from a mere Bunny to Angelina Jolie) who also slept with the old king. Screenwriters Roger Avary and the estimable Neil Gaiman (who must be rueing the day he agreed to do this project) “advance” this plot twist by having Beowulf also succumb to her evil charms. Beowulf’s corruption comes back to haunt him 50 years later, when he atones for his sins by fighting the evil dragon in a climactic battle that results in his death.
The problem with Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” isn’t that it departs from the original story, or that this plot twist is inherently unworkable. In order to generate any kind of narrative tension, Beowulf has to change, be something other than just a brave and virtuous hero. The movie’s solution, although too obvious and somewhat anachronistic (the figure of the corrupting, sexually powerful witch-woman is more associated with the later Middle Ages, as in a character like Morgan le Fay, than Anglo-Saxon literature), could theoretically have worked. Moreover, it can even be justified in terms of certain critical readings of the poem: According to a strong Christian interpretation, Beowulf’s death is his atonement for the sin of pride, to which he succumbed as king. For example, in his 1989 book “The Condemnation of Heroism in the Tragedy of Beowulf,” Fidel Fajardo-Acosta argues that the “battle with Grendel’s mother represents the initiation of Beowulf into full-fledged Cain-gianthood, and into the status of demonic being.”
“Beowulf” doesn’t fail because it changes the story: It fails because it is so busy juicing up the story that it does not create a mythical universe. It has no transfiguring vision. It seizes upon an ancient tale, whose invisible roots run deep into our psyches, and uses it to construct a shiny, plastic entertainment. It takes a wild fable and turns it into a tame story. But “Beowulf” is the kind of story that is meaningless unless it is part of a cosmology. It is, in short, a myth.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author who created the most powerful mythical universe of our time, was also a renowned “Beowulf” scholar. “The Lord of the Rings” was heavily influenced by the poem, and Tolkien wrote what is still one of the seminal essays about it. Tolkien’s analysis of “Beowulf,” and more generally of fantasy and myth, illuminate both why he was able to create a modern mythopoeic masterpiece, and why “Beowulf” falls flat.
“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” published in 1936, marked a turning point in critical studies of the poem. Before Tolkien’s essay, most scholars regarded the unknown poet’s use of supernatural elements — the monster Grendel, his equally monstrous mother, and the dragon — as primitive or childish. Arguing that these “trivial” themes failed to do justice to the poem’s exquisite language, they saw “Beowulf” as being primarily of historical, not artistic, interest. As the scholar W.P. Ker wrote in 1904, “The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.” Tolkien overturned these assumptions. He argued that the poem should be read as a poem, and recognized as a great one. The fantastic elements in “Beowulf,” far from being faintly embarrassing, were inseparable from its majestic artistry.
In a famous allegory, Tolkien compared the author of “Beowulf” to a man who, inheriting a field full of ancient stones, used them to build a tower. His friends, recognizing that the stones had belonged to a more ancient building, tore down the tower “in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions.” What they did not realize, Tolkien ends, was that “from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.”
Tolkien’s point is that the fantastic elements in “Beowulf” are ancient archetypes that have deep roots in human beliefs, fears and wishes — myths, in other words. And in “Beowulf,” he argues, these myths are an essential part of a tragic tale whose theme is “man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time.” The greatness of Beowulf derives from the fact that it is a poem created in “a pregnant moment of poise”: It is balanced between a Christian worldview, in which death and defeat are ultimately themselves defeated by Christ, and a Germanic, pagan one, in which fate rules all and man’s courage alone confers nobility. It is, Tolkien writes, not a primitive poem, but a late one. The pagan world is already past, but the poet still celebrates its vanished power. The fact that a poem written more than a thousand years ago was itself looking back at a lost world gives the poem an uncanny double resonance to the modern reader: “If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is to us as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo.”
Tolkien’s brilliant essay can be seen as a ringing defense not just of “Beowulf,” but of the work he was soon to embark on, another great tower composed of ancient stones. And the themes of lateness, of heroic loss, being caught between one age and another (his world is not called “Middle-earth” for nothing), are the deepest and most sublime parts of his own epic: They are the haunted metaphysical atmosphere through which his characters — men, elves and hobbits alike — must make their way. The coming disappearance of the elves, the hard dawning of the age of men, represent a disenchantment of the world identical to the disenchantment Tolkien found so unbearably moving in “Beowulf.” By introducing this dark note, Tolkien gave artistic expression to the doubts that he himself may have felt about the myth he had created — and so transcended them.
Tolkien was able to use the ancient stones in “Beowulf” to build a modern masterpiece because he recognized that the enduring power of myths derives from their deeper truth. This does not mean he believed that orcs and goblins and elves really existed; rather it derives from his belief that the world was enchanted, illuminated by a sacred light, and that the human sub-creations we call myths — “living shapes that move from mind to mind,” he called them in a poem he wrote for C.S. Lewis — were splinters of that primordial light. For Tolkien, the ultimate source of enchantment was the Christian God, but it is not necessary to share that faith to feel the power of his creation.
The creators of the movie “Beowulf,” however, failed to even recognize that the epic is composed of ancient stones, or that those stones might have something to say to us today. They spent millions of dollars replicating the look of the past, but they forgot that there is something no motion-capture technology can capture: poetry. The essence of “Beowulf,” or any poem, cannot be evoked by mere images. It must be imagined. And the translation of that vision into cinematic images is a matter of art: It cannot be run through a computer.
In this regard, Peter Jackson’s magnificent film version of “The Lord of the Rings” may mislead filmmakers into thinking that all they have to do to tell a mythical tale is shoot the literal action and let the power of film fill in the poetic blanks. But it isn’t that easy. Jackson’s film succeeds not simply because it captures the look of Tolkien’s world, but because it captures its heart.
It’s unfair, and may even seem ludicrous, to single out a trivial entertainment like “Beowulf” for failing to grasp the depths of an ancient masterpiece. There are many mansions in the world of art, and there’s room for 3-D spectacles and digitized cleavage as well as for Mahler and Edith Wharton. But we have plenty of bad fairy tales and high-tech kitsch, and very few “Beowulfs.” The least we can ask is that those who venture into those dim and distant realms not wear clown suits. They spoil our view of the sea.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.